Shortly before President Obama left office he signed into law S.3084, the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA), ending a multi-year partisan battle between House and Senate proposals.  The bill touches on many issues important to preserving and improving the research enterprise of the United States (U.S.), including provisions to maximize basic research, reduce regulatory burdens, and improve Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education as well as ease commercialization of research. In this post, we explore the arguments surrounding the bill’s proposed changes to the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is the independent federal agency tasked with promoting the progress of science in the U.S.

We chose to review the AICA in part because Texas representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX, Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX, Ranking Member of HCSST) played a particularly important role in the evolution of this legislation. Moreover, much of our research is funded through NSF; therefore we have a strong investment in any national discussion regarding the importance of basic research.

Tracking the legislative process of S.3084

The final AICA, sponsored by senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), is a successor to the America COMPETES Act, which was passed in 2007 under the Bush Administration and reauthorized in 2010 under the Obama Administration. The 2007 COMPETES Act was passed with broad bipartisan support. Its goal was to set a national policy for investment in research and development that maintains the competitiveness and international leadership of the United States. The 2010 reauthorization expired in 2013 and has since been the subject of contentious debate.

Both chambers of Congress proposed updates to the legislation following reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act in 2010. The House first proposed H.R.1806, a type of bill called an authorization bill, which authorizes the existence and the terms under which an agency of the federal government operates –any funding levels described in an authorization bill are merely requests or indications of which entities are to receive priority when it comes to the appropriations process. H.R.1806 was strongly opposed by the Democratic members of the House, the White House, and a majority of the scientific community because the legislation called for an expansion of the current peer-review criteria (i.e., intellectual merit and broader impacts) to include a “national interest” criterion. Moreover, the bill specified how funds should be distributed among directorates. Both of these requests were viewed by scientists as political overreach aiming to influence the direction of science. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), however, argued that there needed to be an increase in transparency and accountability to the American taxpayer, and that research of low value was being funded too often. Even so, the specified distribution of funds to directorates within NSF was unprecedented; previous authorizations since 1999 had presented a single number for the agency to self-distribute. The NSF Board has long argued that autonomy in allocation of funds is important to prevent special interests from influencing science funding.

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation developed legislation that would receive bipartisan support. A working group of the Senate Commerce committee met with stakeholders from the research community to gather insight into the needs for maintaining and improving the U.S. research enterprise. The senators sponsoring the bill, John Thune (R-SD) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), aimed to reduce administrative burden, improve STEM policies, and build partnerships between the research community and the private sector (The Hill). The first version of the Senate authorization bill, S.3084, was introduced to the committee on June 22, 2016. In contrast to H.R.1806, S.3084 maintained the same two criteria of peer review used to evaluate grant proposals, called for a 4% increase in funding for NSF in 2018, and did not specify how to allocate funding among directorates.  

Summary of selected provisions

S.3084 went on to become the AICA. It was passed by Congress on December 16, 2016 and signed into law by President Obama on January 7, 2017. The controversial language in the House versions, including the third national interest criterion for review championed by Rep. Lamar Smith, was not included. However, the second criterion of the merit-review process — broader impacts — has been revised to include seven goals that explicitly reference the U.S. and American workforce (see below), thereby preserving the intent of ensuring research is conducted in the national interest. Unlike both the House-passed and Senate-approved versions, the compromise bill does not include any proposed funding levels or allocations. Here is a summary of selected provisions from the Title I: Maximizing Basic Research section of the bill.

  • Reaffirmation of intellectual merit and broader impacts criteria as the basis for evaluating grant proposals
  • Enhancement of transparency and accountability in the peer review process with public notices justifying the expenditure of Federal funds
  • Reaffirmation of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) — a program to strengthen research capabilities in states historically under funded by Federal research
  • Oversight of NSF multi-user research facility projects, including planning, development, operations, and support of the facility to maximize research investment

These are the new broader impacts criteria:

  1. Increasing the economic competitiveness of the United States.
  2. Advancing of the health and welfare of the American public.
  3. Supporting the national defense of the United States.
  4. Enhancing partnerships between academia and industry in the United States.
  5. Developing an American STEM workforce that is globally competitive through improved pre-kindergarten through grade 12 STEM education and teacher development, and improved undergraduate STEM education and instruction.
  6. Improving public scientific literacy and engagement with science and technology in the United States.
  7. Expanding participation of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in STEM.

Stay tuned for the final budget, which will be determined by an appropriations bill from the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), chaired by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX).

Responses to the AICA

The successful passing of the bill was surprising because of the drastically different versions presented in the two chambers, and because the House passed S.3084 with unanimous consent in a pro forma session, when the House was not officially adjourned but many members had already left for break.

The general reaction to the final bill from representatives and outside organizations was of support for its final bipartisan balance of competing interests. Senator John Thune (R-SD), the chairman of the Senate committee that produced the AICA, said “This legislation represents a bipartisan and bicameral approach to boosting innovation and maximizing scientific research opportunities that congress will pick up next year” (Science).  The Association of American Universities, a coalition of 62 research universities, applauded the legislation for incorporating feedback from the university community. This is in contrast to the House version H.R.1806, which was opposed by members of the scientific community because of the proposed funding authorization. However, the exclusion of all funding authorizations in the AICA was lamented by Johnson: “AICA, unlike Competes, does not contain any recommended funding levels, and I believe that is a missed opportunity to send a signal to U.S. scientists and the world about how much we value and need a vibrant U.S. science and technology enterprise” (House Science Committee).

Lauren Castro, Rebecca Tarvin, Katie Lyons, Rayna Harris, Chase Rakowski, and Kelly Wallace contributed to this post.

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One thought on “The Journey of the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act Demonstrates Conflicting Opinions on the Role of Government-Funded Basic Research

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